Mullah Nasrullah, a Taliban commander, made what has become a routine trek from his guerrilla base in Afghanistan across the jagged peaks into Pakistan last month. His destination: the headquarters of his patron and supplier, the powerful insurgent leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. A genial young man in his late 20s or early 30s with a bushy black beard, Haqqani leads the bloody Taliban insurgency in eastern Afghanistan, where American casualties are highest. Interviewed by NEWSWEEK on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Nasrullah refused to specify the reason for his meeting with Haqqani, though it's likely he was looking for more suicide bombers, explosive vests, weapons and money to use against U.S. and NATO forces.
Once inside Pakistan, Nasrullah says, he traveled between insurgent camps. He rode in a new four-wheel-drive vehicle with a towering radio antenna fixed to the front bumper, followed by four pickup trucks filled with militants. Yet their convoy sailed through Pakistani military checkpoints. Whenever they neared one, the jihadists would hail someone named "Col. Niazi" on the radio, who would arrange their safe passage. Nasrullah believes this was a Pakistani Army officer and possibly an operative in the military's premier spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. "He seems to feel invulnerable," Nasrullah says of his patron, Haqqani. "The ISI protects him."
Washington seems to agree. Combating Haqqani fighters has become one of the top priorities for American commanders in Afghanistan. But U.S. officials who would speak only on condition of anonymity when discussing sensitive matters say they have evidence that some elements of Pakistan's ISI are protecting or even helping the Haqqani network. That's helping to drive a far more aggressive U.S. strategy in the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where the Haqqanis and other Taliban groups have established a network of safe havens and training camps for their own and Al Qaeda fighters. And it's raising tensions between America and Pakistan, supposed allies in the war against terror, to levels not seen since September 11.
Senior Pakistani officers say now is not the time to move against Haqqani. They have limited forces, and are concentrating on militants like Baitullah Mehsud, another powerful Taliban leader who is the source of most of the suicide bombers deep inside Pakistan, and who may have been behind the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Because of their mistrust of the United States and neighboring India, the Pakistani military and the ISI may also see the Haqqani network and other Taliban forces as potential assets to gain influence inside Afghanistan. As long as they're not attacking Pakistani targets, say several Pakistan experts, the Haqqanis are not a priority.
According to the Americans, however, Pakistani inaction has allowed the Haqqanis to grow from one insurgent group among many into perhaps the most deadly threat to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This July, top U.S. military and CIA officers confronted their Pakistani counterparts with evidence of the ISI links to Haqqani. One consequence: over the summer President George W. Bush approved new, more relaxed rules of engagement along the border. The Pentagon once required "90 percent" confidence that a "high-value target" was present before approving Predator strikes in Pakistan territory. Now U.S. officials on the ground need to have only 50 to 60 percent confidence to shoot at compounds suspected of sheltering foreign fighters, according to knowledgeable U.S. sources who would speak of sensitive matters only anonymously. The CIA declined to comment.
The new rules also allow "hot pursuit" incursions by U.S. Special Operations troops into Pakistan, a move that Bush had long avoided so as not to offend his close ally President Pervez Musharraf, who resigned last month. On Sept. 3, in the first known raid in Pakistani territory, two dozen U.S. Navy SEALs were airlifted into a cluster of huts near the village of Angor Adda, located about one mile from the Afghan border. Last week Pakistani Army chief Ashfaq Kayani furiously denied the existence of "any agreement or understanding with the Coalition Forces" allowing them to cross the border, and he said he would not permit such actions.
Relations between Pakistan and the United States took a sharp downward turn after the July meeting between Kayani and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which one Pakistani military official described as "extremely testy." Perhaps seeking to placate the Americans, Kayani ordered a new offensive in early August in the Bajaur tribal area in northwestern Pakistan. Afterward, Kayani asked for another meeting with Mullen and other senior U.S. commanders, according to the Pakistani military source, who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely. In late August, the Pentagon responded by inviting Kayani to huddle on a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf with Mullen and a team that included incoming CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus; Gen. David McKiernan, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Adm. Eric Olson, chief of the Special Operations Command.
At that meeting, pressed to deal with Haqqani's growing power as well as that of other militants, Kayani told the Americans that he didn't have the military capability to take on several, sizable insurgent strongholds at once. He asked Washington to provide more modern and highpowered military equipment, notably attack helicopters. But the U.S. commanders were apparently not prepared to give the Pakistani Army chief what he wanted. According to a Pakistani diplomat who asked for anonymity in order to discuss sensitive matters, the Americans told Kayani the United States now reserved the right to strike, even on the ground, against significant Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Pakistan without getting prior approval. Less than one week after the aircraft carrier meeting, the U.S. military launched the Sept. 3 operation, killing what U.S. officials say were two dozen Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
Kayani and his high command were embarrassed by the operation and became enraged, Pakistani officials say. The Pakistanis insist that the dead were almost all civilians, including women and children. "The attack was carried out with bad and faulty intelligence," says the senior military source. "It crossed an acceptable threshold and had a negative impact inside the military and on Pakistani public opinion." Despite protests, at least four more Predator attacks were carried out shortly afterward in North Waziristan against areas controlled by the Haqqani network. One attack on Sept. 8 hit a madrassa complex where Haqqani family members lived and where Qaeda and Taliban fighters frequently sheltered while moving back and forth across the border.
At least one U.S. official, who would discuss American dealings with Islamabad only on condition of anonymity, suggests that there may be some political theater at work in the Pakistani reaction. He says that the U.S. and Pakistani military have reached a "more than tacit" understanding about the new U.S. tactics, in which the Pakistani side has agreed to allow "hot pursuit" operations by American troops, provided that Pakistani authorities are allowed to maintain complete "deniability." That means the Pakistanis will be permitted to publicly criticize the United States for any such operations and assert, without fear of contradiction from Washington, that U.S. forces were acting without Pakistani approval.
Still, U.S. officials acknowledge that if they're not careful, these new aggressive U.S. tactics could backfire. If large numbers of innocents are being killed, U.S. attacks could motivate even more Afghans and Pakistani tribals to join the insurgency on both sides of the frontier. That would widen the war further and undermine the already shaky Pakistani government. It could also create more Islamist sympathizers inside the Pakistani Army and ISI.
Washington is willing to take that risk, in part because Haqqani has become the most active, aggressive and powerful Taliban commander along the border. The son of Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani, an aging, ailing former Afghan mujahedin commander who became legendary leading the fight against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, Siraj is increasingly admired by many jihadists for his smarts and discretion. "He is always friendly, polite and simple, is a good listener, answers directly and has a computerlike memory," says Nasrullah. "He is wise beyond his years."
Under Siraj's leadership, the Haqqani network has come a long way since 2004, when its men were waging small-unit, small-arms, hit-and-run attacks on U.S. bases just a mile or two across the border. Qaeda military experts, ideologues and senior leaders now operate out of Haqqani bases in the tribal areas, and the network has become the primary pipeline for foreign fighters looking to join the jihad in Afghanistan. According to senior Taliban sources who did not want to be identified for security reasons, Siraj also enjoys a steady stream of funding from the Gulf, where three of his brothers are based. "We weren't strong like they are today," says Malem Jan, 42, a veteran Haqqani fighter who led guerrilla strikes across the border until he defected in early 2005 because he thought the Americans were "invulnerable." "If I'd known Siraj would get so strong, I would have never defected."
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, who leads the 19,000 U.S. soldiers operating on the frontier, estimates that his forces are facing some 7,000 to 10,000 insurgents in eastern Afghanistan—a higher number than previously disclosed by any U.S. commander. Most of them operate under Haqqani's control, including the insurgents who launched a multiple suicide-bomber attack on a major U.S. military base, Camp Salerno, in Khowst province, last month. Schloesser says the attack was striking because all the suicide bombers were Arabs and Chechens; normally foreigners act as trainers and organizers, not cannon fodder. He says combat incidents have risen by 20 to 30 percent this year compared with last—one reason Bush recently announced that he plans to send an additional 4,000 or so troops to Afghanistan.
Haqqani has also claimed responsibility for the January attack on Kabul's premier hotel, the Serena, that killed seven and nearly missed the Norwegian foreign minister, and the abortive April assault on the country's National Day parade that targeted Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who escaped unharmed. Afghan and U.S. intelligence have fingered Haqqani as the mastermind of the bloody suicide car bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul last July that killed two Indian officials and more than 40 others. U.S. officials say they intercepted communications between an ISI officer and the Haqqani operatives who were planning the embassy attack. Pakistani officials strenuously deny the charge.
U.S. counterterrorism officials, who asked for anonymity discussing official assessments, say they do not believe that the top levels of the Pakistani military or ISI have sanctioned aid to the Haqqanis; they think local and perhaps retired operatives are to blame. Nevertheless, the insurgents certainly believe that they have powerful connections. One jihadist, a 25-year-old named Shah Muhammad who fights for Haqqani, says he recently got caught in a roundup of militants by the Pakistani Army in North Waziristan. After checking the identity papers and the loyalties of the fighters, the soldiers released the Afghans who could prove they were linked to Haqqani and arrested those tribal militants linked to Baitullah Mehsud.
Today, Haqqani has become the ISI's "darling," says a former Taliban cabinet minister who is still an active supporter of the insurgency and who would speak only on condition of anonymity for security reasons. According to Jan, the Haqqani defector, the clan frequently received visitors he believed to be ISI operatives in the family's North Waziristan camps back in 2004. Jan says a young Pakistani Army officer named Salim, who he believed worked out of the ISI office inside the 11th Army Corps's main base at Miran Shah, located near the Haqqani madrassa complex, used to meet regularly with Siraj. Jan also claims he believes the Pakistanis used to tip off Siraj whenever a U.S. missile strike was imminent. Soon after suddenly huddling with a visitor, whom Jan associated with the ISI, Siraj would immediately change his position and order his men to move from the Miran Shah area to the mountains.
While top Pakistani officers reject out of hand any accusation that the ISI or any Pakistani intelligence agency is aiding the Taliban, Pakistani Army Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the armed forces' spokesman, does not rule out that the ISI is maintaining contacts with the Haqqanis. "Do you think any intelligence agency in the world would like to sever its last contact with any organization it has an interest in?" he asked rhetorically. "It would like to maintain at least one last channel through which it can access and get feedback on the on the-ground realities." Indeed, Afghan Taliban sources say that at the behest of the ISI, Haqqani may now be trying to persuade his ally Mehsud to cease his attacks against Pakistan and to focus on Afghanistan instead.
Whatever ties they may have to the ISI, the Taliban don't feel entirely secure, says the former cabinet minister. He claims the ISI knows the location of Taliban safe havens, training and military facilities, and the precise addresses in towns and villages along the border where commanders and their families live. "I wouldn't be surprised if the ISI arrested us all in one day," he says. "We are like sheep which the Pakistanis could round up whenever they want." He adds that many insurgents still don't have a strong enough foothold inside Afghanistan to spend the winter months there. But more and more are planning to do so, worried about their position within Pakistan.
Recognizing that trend, Schloesser plans to keep his troops operating deep inside Taliban territory this winter. "I plan on having a winter campaign that will take advantage of the mobility that I have to seek out any [insurgent] safe havens in Afghanistan, any facilitation areas, any places they go to for rest and recreation in Afghanistan," Schloesser says. "We're going to give them those options: either flee, get killed or captured, or reconcile." But if they escape across the border—and Islamabad doesn't step up—a new kind of war could well begin.